Who pays for Aspen backcounty rescues?
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN ” Those saved in the backcountry this year won’t pay a dime for their rescues as the expenses are borne by local agencies, which absorb thousands of dollars in costs annually.
The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office – the lead agency responsible for search and rescues – opts to pay all costs associated with finding lost adventures seekers.
“I have never billed anyone,” said Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis, adding he considers search and rescues a taxpayer service. “I have a responsibility to save lives.”
It’s estimated that search and rescues cost the sheriff’s office an average of about $10,000 a year. There have been at least a half-dozen rescues this year, with the most recent being a search conducted in late February for two backcountry skiers who got lost in a blizzard.
The sheriff’s office can be reimbursed for its operations through the state, which has a separate account funded by people who purchase hunting and fishing licenses, as well as recreational fees. But most often, the sheriff’s office ends up paying search and rescues.
The sheriff’s office will be 100 percent reimbursed if they rescue a license holder but it’s not a prerequisite to getting pulled out of the backcountry.
“We rescue without knowing whether they have one,” Braudis said, adding some states are considering charging people for rescues. In Denali, Alaska, the National Park Service is setting a trend by charging hikers expensive fees, which acts like an insurance policy, Braudis said.
“I don’t agree with that,” he said. “It’s a tax.”
Hugh Zuker of Mountain Rescue Aspen, a volunteer arm of the sheriff’s office, said local agencies have a moral and legal responsibility to conduct and bear the cost of search and rescue efforts for everyone in need of their assistance.
“We are 100 percent against charging anyone,” Zuker said. “We don’t want anyone to hesitate to call for help.”
The sheriff’s office has a mutual aid agreement with the Aspen Skiing Co., which often is the first responder to a search or rescue. Braudis said if the incident begins at a ski area, the sheriff’s office will pay the equivalent of a patroller’s hourly wage, but at time and a half.
“Once [people] leave the ski area boundary, it’s totally my responsibility,” Braudis said.
Rich Burkley, Skico’s vice president of mountain operations, said the company hasn’t billed the sheriff’s office for any of its assistance this year and likely won’t.
“We eat it operationally,” Burkley said of the six rescues this season, which have included two below Walsh’s run at Aspen Mountain; one out of bounds at Highlands and three in the Burnt Mountain and West Willow areas outside of the Snowmass ski area boundary.
“We are the best-trained people closest to the terrain so why mobilize Mountain Rescue if we are there?” Burkley said of Skico’s volunteerism. “But we do everything at the request of the sheriff’s office.”
While the typical rescue is based on volunteers, the larger operations that require search planes or helicopters and last for days can cost a fortune – to the tune of $1,500 an hour for a specialized helicopter.
In the case of last month’s search for Zeke Tiernan, 32, and Sean Shehan, 38, local pilots operating out of T Lazy 7 Ranch, were poised to fire up a search plane. But the two men eventually self-rescued themselves out of the Difficult Creek drainage. Typically, local pilots will only charge the sheriff’s office for fuel, Braudis said.
Mountain Rescue can apply for grants from the state license fee fund, Braudis said. Whether the organization is given any money depends on if there is excess revenue in the fund, Braudis said.
Mountain Rescue also raises money through an annual fundraising drive. The volunteer organization, which has a maximum roster of 50 people, raises between $45,000 and $50,000 a year, Zuker said.
But there are plenty of other costs that are borne by its members, he added.
“We come to the party with our own gear,” Zuker said. “The whole spirit of it is volunteerism.”
This year, Mountain Rescue is raising money for a new four-wheel drive truck that costs $200,000.
“We’re always looking for money but not from victims,” Zuker said.
But sometimes victims will pay for rescues voluntarily.
“Rich dudes who we rescued will send donations,” Braudis said.
There have been no deaths or serious injuries this season, which is remarkable considering the amount of snow the Aspen area has experienced.
“We are having a staggeringly safe season,” Burkley said cautiously, noting he hopes that statement doesn’t jinx the pattern. “There are some runs that you never get to ski and people are going for it. This is historic.”
There are tens of thousands of acres of backcountry terrain and brave skiers have been able to take lines on untracked terrain like Shadow and Red mountains because of this year’s record snowfall.
And the Skico has been able to consistently open terrain that usually isn’t possible.
“Because we all are skiers, we are passionate about it so we try to keep things open,” Burkley said. “We have hard-core skiers here … in most resorts this stuff wouldn’t be open.”
The Skico maintains an open boundary on all four of our mountains, and people have the freedom to leave and return to the resort anywhere as long as the terrain is open.
The Skico and the Forest Service have access gates at various sites along the boundary ropes, with signs that have skull and crossbones that read: “This is your decision point. Backcountry risks include death.”
According to the company’s boundary policy, “The Aspen Skiing Company wholly supports your right to access these public lands and the personal responsibilities that accompany this right. Please note that this not the policy at most resorts. You are responsible for knowing the rules of the resort you are visiting … Access this terrain with respect, knowledge and the proper equipment.”
Burkley’s piece of advice when skiing unfamiliar terrain is “pre-ride, re-ride and free-ride.”
“Stay in control and know where you are going,” he said. “If you are skiing off of groomed runs, be on your game.”